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A white coat that won’t get dirty? A runway show in the subway? Washable couture? Unlikely as they may sound, designer Yeohlee Teng has created all of the above. She continues to keep the fashion world on its toes with her innovative yet classic designs.
When it comes to women’s ready-to-wear, Yeohlee Teng is no novice -- her designs have garnered media attention and prominent clientele for the past two decades. Teng, a native Malaysian, attended Parsons School of Design in New York and established her label YEOHLEE Inc. in 1981. Her collections, whether spring or fall, consist of seasonless and functional clothing for real women, and not just the waiflike models in magazines. Teng’s designs address the “urban nomad”, a woman who leads an “urban and global” 21st century lifestyle.
The overriding element in all the YEOHLEE collections is simplicity. Teng creates timeless, practical clothing with a focus on the cut and construction of the fabric, drawing inspiration from architecture. Her Fall 2005 collection features geometric cuts of fabric draped delicately on women’s bodies. Two notable pieces are a tiered skirt, made modestly of five square cuts of silk organdy, and an evening gown with two circular pieces of silk organza, one of which doubles as a shawl and the other as a skirt. Furthermore, Teng chooses accomplished women rather than the typical runway models to showcase her designs. Farrah Fawcett, Valerie Steele, and Rainer Judd are just some of the women who have walked the YEOHLEE runways.
What distinguishes Teng from many other designers is her ability to be innovative and modern in her collections while maintaining the elements of simplicity and timelessness. Her Spring 1999 collection featured a number of gorgeous pieces in white, not the most practical color for the urban nomad. However, these pieces were made from fine Italian cotton coated with DuPont’s protective Teflon -- thus becoming stain-resistant. “Washable couture” is what the New York Times used to describe her Fall 1999 collection. Teng created pieces with refined microfiber that, unlike the vast majority of designer clothing, would not be ruined if thrown into a washing machine. In yet another creative bout, her Spring 2005 runway show was not held in the conventional fashion oasis of Bryant Park. Teng instead decided to present her collection on a subway platform underneath Bryant Park, to celebrate the centennial of the New York metro system.
Teng’s designs have been shown next to those of industry giants like Yves Saint Laurent, Geoffrey Beene, and Rei Kawakubo in museum exhibitions around the world. Her pieces even have a permanent place in the Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in the Dress Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Teng’s first book, YEOHLEE: WORK, material, architecture (2003), displays her designs from the past 20 years and features essays and commentaries by fashion, art, and design critics and curators. In 2004, Teng received the Smithsonian’s prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion, placing her alongside 2003 winner Tom Ford. This is no small feat -- she faced renowned designers Narciso Rodriguez and Marc Jacobs as her competition. APA speaks to Yeohlee Teng about her award, the urban nomad, and the future of the YEOHLEE line.
Interview with Yeohlee Teng
April 1, 2005
Interviewed by Victoria Chin
Transcribed by Victoria Chin
APA: Congratulations on receiving the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion. What was the first thing that crossed your mind when you found out you were chosen for the award?
YT: It was a black tie event. There were eight awards to be announced that evening. With the exception of the Lifetime Achievement, Corporate and Design Patron Award, honoring Milton Glaser, Aveda and Amanda Burden, no one else knew who the winners of each category were; just the finalists. [See: http://www.cooperhewitt.org/NDA/WINNERS/2004/FASHION/teng/index.shtml]
The award for Fashion was the last one to be announced. Marc Jacob’s video was shown first, followed by Narciso Rodriguez’s and then mine. It was intense. I had a sense that I had won by the response from the entire audience at the end of my video. When my name was announced my mind went blank.
APA: Simplicity seems to be a prominent element in all your work. How do you manage to create simple, sophisticated clothing season after season without being repetitive?
YT: The parameters change, time moves on, the culture evolves, affecting different solutions.
APA: I know that one of your main goals in design is to create clothes that are ‘seasonless’, but do you ever take into consideration seasonal trends or trends from other runways when designing your collections?
YT: I pay a lot of attention to everything around me. I expect the exhibition Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture at the Japan Society to have a lot of influence. I am aware of what is shown by my peers; it provides context for the medium.
APA: While browsing through the articles on your website, I was especially impressed to read about how your white coats can actually stay white. How did you think of the idea to coat fine fabrics with Teflon?
YT: I had fallen in love with a very fine, tightly woven Egyptian cotton and was thinking of a way to entice the urban nomad to wear white. The coating is spill and stain resistant. Some white cotton may eventually yellow with age and wear.
APA: Do you have a certain type of customer in mind when you design? How do you account for the various body types of your customers?
YT: I design for the urban nomad, a term I coined for my Fall 1997 collection. It describes a person fully engaged and living a 21st century lifestyle, which is urban and global.
APA: In your most recent collections, I noticed that your models were not the extremely tall and thin women that appear on most runways. What prompted this change, since models for your past runway collections fit the conventional runway body type?
YT: My approach to design is universal; the collections appeal to many different types of women and some men. I have been doing a lot of traditional runway shows and recently decided to think a little out of the box with my presentations/shows. The diversity in the casting is a reflection of my thinking and philosophy.
APA: When and how did you know you wanted to be a fashion designer?
YT: I have always been interested in the subjects of identity and perception.
APA: Coming from Malaysia, was it difficult to adjust to the lifestyle and people of New York? Was your life here drastically different from your life in Malaysia?
YT: Yes it was a challenging adjustment but a welcome change. Malaysia is tropical.
APA: How does your background and upbringing affect your design?
YT: There is a nice balance between East and West within both the sensibility and construction of the designs.
APA: Most college students cannot afford designer clothing like yours. What advice can you give on how to dress well to people with a tight budget?
YT: There is a lot of fashion available at many different price ranges. The most important thing is to be self-aware and to develop your own personal style.
APA: Over the past 20 years or so, do you feel that you’ve changed as a designer? How have your collections evolved over time?
YT: It’s a process. As society and culture evolves so do designs.
APA: Is there anything you still hope to accomplish? What can we expect in the future? Have you ever considered branching out from ready-to-wear to accessories or even menswear?
YT: I am very excited and optimistic about the future, particularly in approaching the Asian market. Accessories are, of course, next in line, as well as menswear -- a must -- and a store in New York for the brand.
APA: What advice can you give to aspiring designers?
YT: Go for it!
For more information, visit: www.yeohlee.com
Date Posted: 4/28/2005